Dispelling the Myths Surrounding Police Use of Lethal Force

Dispelling the Myths Surrounding Police Use of Lethal Force

July, 2016

Over the last three years there has been growing concern in the public discourse about the use of force, especially lethal force, by the police in the United States.

This concern spawned the creation of the Black Lives Matter organization and motivated President Obama to organize a commission on policing in the 21st century. Concerns over several highly publicized and politicized deaths of African-American men by policeuse of force have produced numerous public protests in almost every city, town, and university in the nation. Most of these protests have been peaceful, but many have not, especially the protest in Dallas on July 7 that resulted in eleven officers being shot, five of them fatally. This was followed on July 17 by the ambush of officers in Baton Rouge, with 6 officers shot, 3 of them fatally.

In the public discussion around the topic of police use of force, many disturbing claims have been made by civil rights groups, the news media, and even government leaders. However, as President Obama stated in his October 27, 2015 address to the International Association of Chiefs of Police,

“too often law enforcement gets scapegoated for broader failures of our society.1 ”

The purpose of this report, therefore, is to fact check these various claims and, with the aid of scientific research and other credible sources, try to determine if these claims are indeed true. The reader is encouraged to access and explore the many references cited in this report so that the reader can assess the facts and make up his or her own mind.

Police Use of Lethal Force is an Epidemic

Many civil rights leaders, politicians, and media figures have suggested that deaths from police use of force in the U.S. are widespread and have reached epidemic levels. To check the evidence for this argument, one must first determine how many police use of force deaths actually occur annually. There is some difficulty involved in determining exactly how many deaths occur annually from police use of force as data sources differ widely.

Determining how many deaths actually occur

Official government statistics on deaths from police activity come from two distinct sources – the FBI Uniform Crime Reports and the CDC Mortality Reports. The FBI data is gathered from law enforcement agencies that voluntarily report specific types of crime data, including all homicides, each year.2 These data have been criticized because between 20% and 30% of law enforceme nt agencies do not report data in a given year, although the majority of these non-reporting agencies are quite small (fewer than 5 officers) and rarely experience violent crime.3 The CDC data, on the other hand, comes from a federal supplemental form that is completed by coroners and physicia ns when they complete a death certificate.4 Because it takes time to gather all of the facts needed to determine the correct cause of death, and it takes time to compile, tabulate, and analyze the data received, the FBI and CDC release their reports lagged by about two years. In other words, information on deaths in 2016 will not be available to the public until 2018. Despite the fact that these data come from different sources (police departments versus hospitals), the numbers generally coincide.
An analysis of the CDC data for the 10-years of 2003 through 2012 revealed that 4,285 deaths were reported by doctors and coroners to have been attributed to “legal interventions” by the police. While the number of deaths fluctuated from year to year, the average annual number of deaths from police use of force reported by the CDC (not police sources) over the last decade was 429 deaths.5 Please recall, however, that these data are lagged by two years, so 2014 has only just become available.

Critical of these official statistics, several media outlets have attempted to create their own data regarding deaths from police use of force. Unfortunately, these media data collection efforts are more likely to contain errors as they rely only on media reports and report information before all the facts have even been determined. Just one typical example of this would be a barricaded gunman situation where the gunman opens fire on the police, the police return fire, and the man is later found dead. Only after a full autopsy is conducted and a coroner’s report is released months later is it learned that the gunman actually committed suicide and was never hit by the bullets of the police. Nevertheless, this death is attributed to the police in the media data. The media data also counts accidental deaths from police use of force, such as when an officer shoots at an armed suspect, but the bullet misses and hits an innocent bystander a block away.

Many media sources have also pursued their own criteria for what constitutes a death from police use of force. The British newspaper, The Guardian, for example, used such sketchy sources as Facebook posts and Twitter tweets, and even counted deaths that were ruled accidents, such as when the police were in a vehicle pursuit and a fatal auto crash resulted. Using the widest definit ion of “police killings” possible, The Guardian found that 1,134 deaths occurred in 2015 due to police activity.6 Using a slightly more conservative definition of police use of force, and sticking strictly to media sources, the Washington Post found that 990 individuals were shot and killed by the police in 2015.7 This does not necessarily mean that the official CDC and FBI statistics are incorrect as we will have to wait a year or so to find out how closely the federal 2015 numbers match those of the Washington Post.